USDA grants to expand internet access for students across Imperial County

The Imperial Valley Telecommunications Authority has received $1.2 million in funding to build Borderlink, a private education wireless network throughout Imperial County that will connect schools and public agencies to each other and the internet. Students and teachers will be provided devices to ensure this high-speed connectivity is with them as they leave school grounds. A pilot program underway already relies on LTE technology, which is broadcast from towers such as that seen here. ADOBE STOCK PHOTO

EL CENTRO — Families in rural parts of Imperial County will have an easier time obtaining basic internet access thanks to a grant from the federal government to enhance the BorderLink Wireless Network Project.

The private education wireless network infrastructure will complement existing fiber-optic infrastructure throughout Imperial County that connects schools and public agencies to each other and the internet. Students and teachers will be provided devices to ensure this high-speed connectivity is with them as they leave school grounds.

Services are expected to be operational in late 2019 in the communities of Calipatria, Heber, Holtville, Niland, Ocotillo, Seeley, Westmorland and Winterhaven.

Once the system is deployed, students will have access at home, with the same protections and policies that districts maintain at school.

$1.2 million in funding

The Imperial Valley Telecommunications Authority has received eight U.S. Department of Agriculture Community Facilities grants totaling $840,000. IVTA is allocating an additional $360,000, bringing the total amount of funding for the project to $1.2 million, according to the Imperial County Office of Education. ICOE is a founding member and administrator of the IVTA, which operates on behalf of public agencies throughout Imperial County.

The USDA’s overall investment of $10.7 million was awarded to 85 different projects in 22 states through its Community Facilities program, which, among other things, targets opioid addiction in rural America.

“We are very pleased that the USDA selected to fund all of the proposals we submitted on behalf of rural communities in Imperial County,” Dr. Todd Finnell, County Superintendent of Schools, said in a press release. “These grants will allow us to expand access in some of our most underserved communities. It’s exciting to think of the possibilities that this access will bring to students and families.”

BorderLink will have a tremendous impact on education, allowing schools to close the so-called homework gap and provide equitable access for all students, the release said.

The homework gap refers to the difficulties some socio-economically disadvantaged students face when working on school assignments without a reliable Internet connection at home, according to ICOE. With no Internet connection at home, some students lack the resources to succeed academically.

The homework gap prevents students from obtaining access to online research, collaborating in group projects or submitting online assignments from their homes. With connectivity ensured by BorderLink, students will no longer need to worry about having the access they need to achieve their educational goals, engage with other students or teachers, and access their digital curriculum and other resources.

Cutting-edge wireless network

The cutting-edge wireless network funded through by the joint grants is critical infrastructure that also will support first responders in the line of duty such as firefighters, law enforcement and emergency medical services personnel by providing access to critical data, allowing for informed decisions in real time. The network will allow agencies to share vital information more quickly, and more efficiently, according to ICOE.

BorderLink also will help first responders reduce response times when responding to opioid-abuse-related calls.

Pilot program

ICOE already has launched a pilot program to determine the feasibility of the Borderlink program. The pilot program relies on Long Term Evolution technology, the same wireless technology that connects mobile phones and devices from all of the major carriers.

For the pilot program, ICOE teamed up with local school districts to bring wireless internet connectivity to students in Brawley, El Centro, Heber and Seeley. The successes and lessons learned from this initial pilot will be used as a roadmap for the eventual countywide build-out of a private wireless network that will extend across Imperial County and serve more than 35,000 students.

Chris McDaniel can be contacted at (760) 337-3440 or via email at cmcdaniel@ivpressonline.com

Staff Writer Chris McDaniel can be reached at cmcdaniel@ivpressonline.com or 760-337-3440.

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